On Christmas Eve 1971, a domestic flight 508, left Lima for Pucallpa in Peru. En route there was a bad thunderstorm. A lightning strike to the wing caused an explosion and the aircraft broke up in mid air over the Amazon. Everyone on board was killed except for a 17 year old German girl, Juliane Koepcke. Still strapped to the seat, she fell two miles down into the rain forest. The tree canopy almost certainly broke her fall. She woke up after a day and with a broken collar bone and leg injury spent 10 days trekking along a river until very weak, she met local lumbermen.
On Christmas Eve 1971, Werner Herzog was booked on flight 508 whilst looking for locations for Aguirre, Wrath of God. At the last minute the itinerary was changed and his reservation cancelled. Herzog spent several years looking for Koepcke, who wasn't interested in publicity. When they finally meet in the departure lounge of Lima airport, Herzog reminisces about the day and they both remember how the change in itinerary was met with cheers by a number of people hoping to get home for Christmas. They board a plane for Pucallpa and sit in the same seat row as the fateful flight.
They are subsequently taken by helicopter to the crash site in the jungle and find the original wreckage. Koepcke picks over the remains that are handed to her and rather than throw them down, bends to place them back. The plan is to take the route back to the river and along to the place where she eventually was found. An attractive and intelligent woman, her parents were biologists and the family lived in Peru for many years. Juliane knew how to survive and we see her duly wading back along the river, recalling crocodiles sliding into the water, which she knew wouldn't attack her. As the film progresses she seems to open up and is given the opportunity to humourously mock a terrible 1974 film that was based on her 'Miracoli accadono ancora, I'.
Herzog plays the documentary straight. There are no dramatic reconstructions. No visual effects. No cataclysmic incidental music. Herzog narrates and Koepcke talks to both him and us. She describes some of her dreams including one involving butterflies and we see her in a large museum. She walks down a line of hundreds of drawers and pulls out one. The camera lingers on a collection of several large, exotic butterflies within it as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring plays. This is not contrived as it seems, since she herself, is a zoologist.
The final scenes include a meeting with one of the men who found her and a profound sequence where the Amazon porters lift a section of the aircraft. It still has the lettering on the side, two intact windows and an open emergency exit port. The camera tracks through the hole to Koepcke standing on the other side - within the absent aircraft. Herzog never fails to amaze.
Eccentric German writer/director known equally for his brilliant visionary style and tortuous filming techniques. After several years struggling financially to launch himself as a filmmaker, Herzog began his career with the wartime drama Lebenszeichen and surreal comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small. But it was the stunning 1972 jungle adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God that brought him international acclaim and began his tempestuous working relationship with Klaus Kinski. The 1975 period fable Heart of Glass featured an almost entirely hypnotised cast, while other Herzog classics from this era include Stroszek, the gothic horror Nosferatu the Vampyre and the spectacular, notoriously expensive epic Fitzcarraldo.